Wild thing: Maurice Sendak, 1928 – 2012

The author and illustrator Maurice Sendak died recently at the age of 83. He was best known for his picture book “Where the Wild Things Are”, but there was much more to his life and work than that book alone. He was devoted to the art and craft of children’s books and their illustration. Read a little more about him here, and see a display of his work at Gilmerton Library this month.

How Jewish Poland met Walt Disney and Hans Christian Andersen in Brooklyn; and how the result was a Wild Rumpus which echoes still. 

Born in 1928 to parents of Polish-Jewish origin (more Jewish than Polish, in his own assessment), Maurice Sendak grew up in Brooklyn during the Depression and the New Deal. Childhood illnesses frequently obliged him, like R.L. Stevenson, to observe the street scene from his bedroom window. When health permitted, he was part of the action. He recalled entire summer days lived on the street, with children allowed back into the tenements only to use the toilet or to staunch bleeding. Often, he was entrusted to the fierce care of his older sister. During these years, he had the impression that Brooklyn was Poland, the old country of his parents and relatives. New York – America – was an enticing but foreign land which lay beyond the Brooklyn Bridge.

Sendak was captivated from an early age by the book as object – something to be gazed upon, hefted, smelled, even tasted, before being merely read. (His contempt for the e-book was characteristically uncompromising). By the age of twelve, he had been enchanted by Walt Disney’s feature-length film “Fantasia” which choreographed cartoon animation for orchestral music. Mickey Mouse (Sendak had an extensive collection of “Mickey Mousiana”) was the Sorcerer’s Apprentice; tutu-ed hippos danced “The Sugar Plum Fairy”; the rise and fall of the dinosaurs was played out to Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”. Sendak was later to liken the art of illustrating a text to that of musical accompaniment.

From his early teens, Sendak was drawing characters and incidents from his surroundings. A dominant and extrovert neighbourhood child named Rosie, who would dragoon her playmates into re-enacting “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” whilst hogging both principal roles for herself, became the template for the heroes and heroines of Sendak’s picture books. From Martin in “Very Far Away“ (1957) to Max in “Where the Wild Things Are” (1963), these protagonists are no cautionary models of decorum. Children or not, they know the score. The world isn’t a safe or a comfortable place, and you may find yourself thrown back on your native resources of courage, cunning and intelligence. Initiative and boldness, rather than insipid “goodness”, will be your friend when the going gets tough. Max, in “Where the Wild Things Are”, is thinking on his feet when it occurs to him to stare out the yellow gaze of the Wild Things and command them to “Be still!” – but it pays off. Like Rosie, this boy knows “how to get through a day”.

Sendak’s own carnaptious unsentimentality – he railed against the “Kiddiebookland …next to Neverneverville and Peterpanburg” – was rooted in an  understanding of the fragility of life and security. Ill health dogged him into adulthood – he suffered a coronary thrombosis in his late thirties. Although his immediate family was safe in America, he was aware of the grief of his parents and relatives as it became clear to them how many known to them had been murdered in Nazi Europe. He was deeply affected by the case of the kidnap and murder in 1932 of the infant son of the American national hero Charles Lindbergh. A famous Press photograph of the kidnapper’s ladder set against the wall of the Lindbergh mansion was echoed in one of the illustrations in “Outside Over There“(1981).

Sendak was a scholar of storytelling, book-making, and illustration. He immersed himself in their history, theory and practice. He had a deep appreciation of the masters and mistresses of these arts – Hans Christian Andersen, Randolph Caldecott, Herman Melville, Beatrix Potter, Edward Ardizzone, Laura Ingalls Wilder – and felt himself a bearer of their tradition. Successfully to illustrate a text – his own, or another writer’s – was to “quicken” it, and it was a demanding but high calling. A student and master  of many styles, he regarded the temptation to cultivate a particular style as a grave error: “If you have only one style, then you’re going to do the same book over and over, which is, of course, pretty dull.”

Neither Sendak nor his work was ever dull. The man was complex, thrawn, and disconcerting. He resented his Bar Mitzvah being blighted by parental grief at news of anti-Semitic atrocities in Europe. His Wild Things were modelled on rusticated and snaggle-toothed relatives who visited, smelled odd, and ate the family food. But he was “interested in the …dilemmas …the often neglected pain…in the simple heroism of children”; and it showed in his work.


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